Illustration by Owen Jones from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren," 1869
Illustration by Owen Jones from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren," 1869

Dreaming makes the world a better place


Vayeishev

Genesis 37:1–40:23

Amos 2:6–3:8


Tuning into the news these days can make us feel like we’re trapped in a bad dream. We strive to wake up — and to wake each other up — so that we may shift the trajectory of the path we are on. Perhaps what we really need to do is go to sleep and dream up something new.

Like Jonah, the reluctant prophet, overwhelmed by the task at hand, we may feel like retreating into sleep to avoid taking responsibility. Like the captain who implores Jonah to wake up to save the ship, the world calls out to us, “Why do you sleep?! Get up! Call out to your God!”

To awaken is to see with clear eyes what is happening around us, to understand our role, and to take action to make change. These steps are crucial to calming the tide and steering our collective ship toward safe passage.

Yet, while waking up to the reality of the world and taking action is imperative, might there also be something vital in sleep?

Sleep is the place of nightmares, but it’s also the realm of dreams. Often dismissed as unimportant, dreams are a powerful resource for us to envision the world we imagine. According to Benjamin Baird, Ph.D., a researcher at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin in Madison: “What the brain is doing at all times is trying to construct a model of the world around us from the best input it has. When we’re awake, the input comes from our environment. But when we’re asleep … the input comes from within.”

In a dream state, a different kind of information becomes available to us.

According to the Talmud, dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Berachot 57b).

Furthering this notion, Maimonides, in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” writes that through dreams the imaginative faculty is awakened, without which prophecy is impossible. In dreams, we detach from our conscious waking life and enter the realm of the imagination. Here, our body and brain rest and we are able to integrate the events that confront us during our waking hours.

However, something else happens, as well. According to the 18th-century Italian Kabbalist and ethicist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, when we dream, our soul enters the spiritual realm and we receive communications and insights not readily accessible otherwise (Derech Hashem 3:1:6).

In the Torah, Jacob, Pharaoh and Joseph all receive visions from the Divine through dreams. Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching to heaven opens up connection between him and the Divine. Pharaoh’s dreams famously forecast years of plenty followed by years of famine. And, at the start of this week’s parshah, Joseph begins to receive revelations about the future through his dreams.

By the end of the parshah, Joseph is helping others understand the messages encoded in their own dreams. While Pharaoh and Joseph both seem well-versed in the power of dreams, Jacob is more surprised. Awakening from sleep he says, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” According to Rashi, had Jacob known how holy the place was, he would not have slept.

We often feel resistance to the dreamworld. With so much in need of change in our world, dreaming can feel like a shirking of responsibility. Rather, what we believe we must do is wake ourselves from apathy and inaction in order to bring about a world redeemed. However, as scholar Dr. Avivah Zornberg points out in “The Beginning of Desire,” had Jacob not slept, he would not have dreamed of God and angels, would not have received his first message from God and would not have understood the holiness of the ground on which he stood.

Similarly, in our parshah, Joseph’s dreams afforded him insight into the power he would have in the future, without which he might not have survived the traumas of his childhood.

Dreaming is vital to social change, for it allows us to imagine the future that is yet to be.

May this become a time in which, in the words of the prophet Joel, “The old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.” And may it be that our dreams enable us to bring about a world redeemed.

Rabbi Adina Allen
Rabbi Adina Allen

Rabbi Adina Allen is co-founder and creative director of the Jewish Studio Project in Berkeley. She can be reached at adina@jewishstudioproject.org.